Student activists, wanted by the police for being members of the national student organization Hanchongnyeon, have been separated from their families for many years, living in university campuses 24 hours a day in order to avoid arrests. They call themselves "walking hospital cases," suffering all sorts of illnesses that they have no way of getting proper treatment for. Mothers of these students feel guilty about sleeping in a warm bed while their children live in hiding. At family gatherings, it is not their desperately missed children but detectives who come calling. Despite this absurd reality enforced separation for the "crime" of being elected a student representative, these fugitives and their families have not given up hope in the new Roh government.
Bang Young-sook (aged 64), whose son has been running from the police for some seven years, says, "Each time the administration changed hands, they'd just promise to 'make an effort' to help my son, but this time, I believe my son will gain his freedom." Talking about the situation that families like hers face, Bang says, "It's hard enough worrying about my son without having to bear the hurt of the strange looks people throw at us. My neighbors have started to avoid me for fear that they might be disadvantaged in some way, and so I've stopped going to church."
When she first learnt that her son was hiding from the police, Bang was thrown into despair, believing that it was the end of her family. But as she got to know members of Mingahyop, an organization of families advocating civil rights for prisoners of conscience, she came to realize that her son was "doing something that grown-ups had failed to do." What hurts her most is the stigma her recently-married daughter has to face as "so-and-so's older sister." Detectives had come to the wedding to keep a lookout in case Bang's son made an appearance.
Says Bang, "There is no hope for a nation that wants to block the eyes and ears and mouths of students. I just long for the day when I can feed my son a warm meal. He's become so weak from sleeping on cold floors." Mothers like Bang refuse to turn on the heating in their homes even in the winter. They cannot bring themselves to live in comfort when their children are losing their health to tension and irregular lifestyles.
The results of a recent medical check-up that a humanitarian doctors' group did on about 50 of the students prove that the mothers' fears are not unfounded.
Kim Ju-young (pseudonym, aged 25), on the police wanted list for 3 years now, says, "The doctor diagnosed weakened heart functions, caused by frequent palpitations due to fear of arrest. He said my liver's also in poor shape, and recommended closer medical examination, which I can't even dream of in my present situation." The female students are particularly vulnerable, with many of them suffering from irregular menstrual periods. But they commented, to this reporter's dismay, that irregular periods do not even count as an illness.
Han Young-hwa (pseudonym, aged 25), said, "If you look at the students sitting on electric heating pads spread on the cold floor, massaging their arms and legs, it's a scene right out of a general hospital. Most of us have stomach convulsions from irregular meals, and aching shoulders and backs from sleeping in uncomfortable make-shift beds. But such ailments are so common it's taken lightly." Han went on in a bitter voice, "I heard that the doctors were shocked at the results of a questionnaire showing that more than 30 of the 100 students surveyed were suffering from hypochondria. Try finding another group where 30% of its members are mentally depressed!"
Yu Young-eop, representative of the student activists wanted by the police, says, "Living in hiding or on the run for many years in a constant state of anxiety has wreaked havoc on our lives. Most of us either suddenly gain or lose weight, reaching a state where we no longer have control over our bodies."
Dr. Kim Jeong-beom who runs a clinic in Incheon explains, "The secret to good health is a regular lifestyle, sufficient sleep and a nutritious diet, none of which are present in the students' lifestyle. So their lifestyle itself is a threat to their health."
Hanchongnyeon, or the Korea Federation of Student Councils, has been outlawed as an enemy-benefiting group for the past six years. More than 1,500 Hanchongnyeon members have become wanted criminals, and 787 of them have been arrested. As of March this year, students who have been running from the police for one to seven years number 180. These students all say that it is a national disgrace for a government to go after students who have been chosen as representatives by fellow students in democratic elections.
Cho Sun-hee (pseudonym, aged 25), into her third year as a fugitive, says, "I've been doing nothing but make plans for the two years since graduating. I want to become a women's rights activist, but I'm just stuck here unable to do anything to pursue my goals." She confesses that she is beginning to "lose faith." Cho's mother did not make it to the family reunion event, because she could not take time off from her factory job. Recalls Cho, "She came to school to meet me during the New Year holidays, but she just sat there with lips tightly closed and left in just five minutes. I cried my eyes out that day."
Cho works part-time on campus in order to support herself. At an age when she ought to be holding down a proper job and supporting her mother, she does not want the added guilt of having to depend on her mother for pocket money. She longs for the day when she can say goodbye to taking cold showers in school toilets and sleeping on cold floors. She cries, "All I want is not to be cut off from society, to have a proper job and form close relationships with people. Is that asking too much?"
The government recently announced that it is thinking of letting off the Hanchongnyeon members who have become political fugitives. On March 14, Moon Jae-in, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, met with the representative of the students' families. Moon promised to resolve the issue by May through a special amnesty on the occasion of the President's inauguration.
Kang Wi-won, executive secretary of the Social Committee to Guarantee the Legitimate Activities of Hanchongnyeon (Social Committee), explains, "The courts are complaining that they are being forced to handle an issue that politicians ought to be taking care of. Judges are put in a difficult position since they have to follow existing laws in dealing with Hanchongnyeon students. Most people feel that this issue should be fundamentally resolved by the government and legislators." Furthermore, since defining Hanchongnyeon as an illegal organization that 'benefits the state enemy' was a political decision in the first place, politicians should be responsible for now legalizing the organization.
Kang added that the newly-elected members of Hanchongnyeon who form the 11th Convention of Representatives should not be outlawed in the way all their predecessors have been since 1998. Based on existing laws, prosecutors and the Ministry of Justice should make arrangements to investigate each individual member's activities instead of conveniently outlawing the whole lot for being members of an illegal group. Kang warns, "What the government should be worrying about is students getting the impression that showing concern for national problems will be taken as 'enemy-benefiting' action. Grownups complain that university students these days are apolitical, but they don't seem to realize that they are suppressing any political awareness the students might have by condemning it as enemy-benefiting!"
April brings tidings of spring, but the students hiding from the police cannot even freely walk around outdoors on campus. Their one desire is a sensible decision from the new administration. This desire will culminate in another family reunion organized by the Social Committee, Mingahyop and other human rights groups on April 4 in Yonsei University under the theme 'First Meeting in the New Spring.' May these families soon welcome the day when they no longer have to be split by invisible borders.